Trudeau says government eyeing ways to curb COVID-19 spread as pandemic declared

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OTTAWA -- The federal government rolled out a $1-billion package Wednesday to help the country's health-care system and economy cope with the novel coronavirus outbreak as the number of cases in Canada grew, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that the situation could get worse, and the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Multiple health authorities reported a flurry of new positive tests for COVID-19, including one person at Canadian Forces Base Trenton repatriated from a cruise ship docked in California, and a man in Sudbury, Ont., who attended a large mining conference in Toronto.

That conference included appearances by Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan, who is in self-isolation awaiting test results after showing symptoms of a respiratory illness.

With more than 100,000 people sickened around the world, including more than 100 in Canada, and the expectation of more, the WHO called on countries to mitigate the social and economic impacts while minimizing the disruption to everyday life.

Trudeau said Canada's government is considering more measures to contain COVID-19, such as what to do with incoming cruise ships, on which the disease has been known to spread.

He said Canada has been fortunate so far but warned cases could climb. He demurred on when the government would opt for stricter measures like community-wide lockdowns, such as those in China and Italy.

"It's not about time. It's about the situation and the facts on the ground. We will closely monitor what is needed to be done to keep Canadians safe," Trudeau said, flanked by key ministers and Canada's chief public health officer.

"While we are prepared for a wide range of scenarios, we will focus right now on what needs to be done now and endeavour to make sure that is enough, that we don't have to take future steps."

The Public Health Agency of Canada says the risk to the general population is low, and most people diagnosed with COVID-19 experience manageable symptoms like a fever or cough. For some, such as seniors and those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, the illness can be more severe.

Among the Canadians diagnosed with the illness so far, fewer than 15 per cent have required hospitalization. One has died, a man who lived in a nursing home in Vancouver.

Individual behaviour -- like washing hands and coughing into the crook of an elbow -- can slow the spread of the infection.

The potential for extra patients in hospitals is why half of the $1-billion spending package will go to help provinces and territories prepare and react, and pay for protective gear like masks and gowns for health workers.

A smaller portion of the spending eases access to federal benefits for workers whose livelihoods are disrupted by COVID-19, aiming to remove barriers for people with more precarious jobs to stay home, avoid infecting others, and get them benefits quickly.

Federal officials are eyeing ways to help those who don't qualify for EI receive benefits, possibly providing grants as was done during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Federal lending is also going to be ramped up to help businesses access credit to handle the economic shock, similar to a program during the financial crisis just over a decade ago that provided $11 billion to 10,000 firms.

The reaction from business and labour groups was that the funding was a start to deal with the uncertainty about the depth and duration of the economic shock to the country.

The Business Council of Canada said it made sense to "hold off on major economic stimulus measures"  until more was known. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce called it a "positive and pragmatic approach to the global risks of the spreading virus."

Hassan Yussuf, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the package could help avoid job losses given he has heard stories of impending layoffs in the air-travel industry, and of seafood processors in Atlantic Canada watching demand for exports to China drop.

Politically, the package landed with more of a thud. Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the Liberal response was short on specifics, including what exactly the spending will achieve, and should have happened weeks ago, while the party's health critic Matt Jeneroux said he wanted the Liberals to expand arrivals screening for passengers coming from countries where the virus is rampant, including Italy.

-- With files from Stephanie Levitz

-- Follow @jpress on Twitter

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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